In a recent article Daniel Bornstein (2010) challenges readers to “imagine there was a cure for meanness.” He reports on a curriculum intervention now used in more than 12,600 classes in four countries called the “Roots of Empathy” program in which a mother and child are brought into schools for three visits per month. Researchers have concluded that “the program increases kindness and acceptance of others and decreases negative aggression.” Summarizing University of Massachusetts professor Ervin Staub’s research, Bornstein states that he “found that the best way to create a caring climate is to engage children collectively in an activity that benefits another human being.”
Charity vs. Justice
Similar to Bornstein’s article, I too have found that bringing together groups of high school youth with babies can have a significant impact upon students. Since 1992 I have been leading school trips to orphanages in Asia. I have felt compelled to take these trips due to the moving testimony of students about the impact of such experiences. However, about ten years ago I sought to move away from orphanage trips to encounters that engaged students in the sociopolitical roots of injustice. I felt that perhaps taking care of children at an orphanage was more of an emotional high rather than true service. On the charity and justice continuum, orphanage work appeared to be “mopping up the floor” rather than “fixing the faucet.”
In light of my research, however, I have come to appreciate anew the vital role that caring for children can play in the lives of our students. While spending time at an orphanage may be charity for the orphans, it begins a process in my students in which they come to relate in an intensely emotional way to society. In my research I found that social conscience education requires a re-alignment of the relationship between students and their social environment. While most students are initially overly focused on their own academic achievement, social conscience education aims to correct this excessive self-concentration with care for the community. While some student mindsets may be shifted from self to society through sociopolitical study and engagement, for most students a trip to an orphanage is far more efficacious because of the deep emotional impact of the experience.
A Recent Orphanage Trip to China
I recently took 39 freshman students to an orphanage to Foshan, China, about four hours north of Hong Kong by bus. Students spent much of the weekend days at the orphanage, while evenings provided time for rich discussion about the children in their care.
As we entered the orphanage on the first day, I immediately sensed the beginnings of a an attitudinal shift from themselves to the orphans. Later that night in the hotel I recorded my thoughts:
We had just arrived on the 4th floor of the special needs section and I sat off to one side holding the hand of a child I had known for years. In that brief moment of being introduced to the children, as students changed roles from 9th graders to caregivers, I distinctly felt some larger force at work. As I watched, I sensed that my students were being offered a change in life direction – from a line to a circle. Parents, society, and to a great degree the school as well are all in agreement that students should be on straight-line path to the best universities in the world. The pressure on our students to ‘toe this line’ is immense. However, in those brief initial moments, as our students began playing with the special needs children, their belief in “the line” was powerfully called into question. As students and young children ran happily around an outdoor playground, a new idea was conceived about the mysterious, alluring intuitive power of the circle. All religious traditions – Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and many others – find progress on the spiritual journey by walking in circles. While the line of progress and success seems unnatural in its demands and pacing, the circle, these traditions understand, represent the reality of our lives as a journey of unknown twists and turns which bring out what is most human about us: our ability and desire to smile, help, touch, and care. As I sat on the playground holding the hand of this child and observing this scene, I saw and felt something new emerging slowly within my students. I sensed that for the moment the line had been interrupted and a circle had begun.
The students on this trip were model caregivers, attending sensitively to the little ones on the 5th floor and enthusiastically entertaining the special needs children and young people on the 3rd floor. This intense experience affected students’ relationship to their own schooling. As we debriefed during the first class period back, I asked students were to give a one-word description of their feelings, one students state. One boy said he school had become “pointless” – school seemed devoid of meaning in comparison to caring for orphans. There must be more to life than studying chemistry equations, another student commented, when so much is at stake beyond the cozy confines of our school.
Impact of Orphanage Trips on Students
This annual trip for all Humanities I in Action students introduces students to the joys and challenges of service. When students return, they often come to realize that Foshan is representative of many injustices present beyond HKIS. This experience often helps students see that they have the ability to contribute to a more equitable world. What makes this trip especially valuable is that it is integrated into the course curriculum, providing students with much to contemplate in the quest to determine their own worldview, a life philosophy that will undergird future action.
Students oftentimes say that their journey of social conscience, including contemplation of their ability to make a difference in the world, began in Foshan. Several years ago one of my students, Tiffany Chan, wrote:
Before a journey begins, there is a moment . . . when a darker side of the world is thrust upon us. The journey begins when the blindfolds are untied and fall away from our vision; it is when we see. When we went to Foshan in my freshman year, I saw. When I went to Mongolia that same year, I saw. It was a slow stirring of my soul, an insistent urging to go further out, to see more, to do more, feel more, give more, empathize more with the rest of the world. My journey began at the draw of a window curtain, at the flick of a light switch, at the light of a matchstick. It was ultimately, the ignition of a fire that I hope will never cease to burn . . . I am convinced that fires are not as easily extinguished as they are activated.
Taking care of babies within a classroom community can have a profound effect upon high school students. The “Roots of Empathy” program in Canada as well as orphanage visits in China both lead to the same conclusion. Giving high school youth a collective experience of care for young children can offer these students an opportunity to re-think their direction in life, challenge boundaries of the self, and consider compassion as an important life value.
Bornstein, D. (2010). “Fighting bullies with babies.” New York Times (November 10, 2010). Accessed on November 22 from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/08/fighting-bullying-with-babies/
Note on Video: All students in Humanities I in Action are asked to design their own Personal Action Project following the Foshan trip. Two groups of students chose Concordia Children’s Services, an orphanage in Manila. supported by the Lutheran Church. In addition to raising $2000 US as a donation, our group enjoyed a rewarding weekend at the orphanage. The students recorded our time at the orphanage and reflections on the trip in the following video: